McCain thaws hearts with frozen comfort

Consumers see frozen food as a dowdy ‘last-resort’ option. Now McCain and Birds Eye are taking radically different approaches to win consumers back to their chilly charms. By David Benady

McCain Foods, which sells one in three of the world’s frozen chips, claims it is responding to the the obesity crisis by “moving to provide a wider variety of product choices”. But its latest microwaveable snacks are unlikely to get the thumbs-up from healthy-eating watchdogs.

McCain is bringing out a range of desserts, including frozen muffins and doughnuts with a chocolate sauce (MW last week), which will be backed by a substantial campaign this October.

While rival Birds Eye is trying to “re-educate” people about the health benefits of the freezing process through its spring relaunch, McCain is continuing to promote its frozen oven-ready chips and related potato products as comfort food, through the “Chin Up” campaign that positions the company’s products as a relief from life’s daily humiliations.

The ads, created by TBWA/London, are a brave attempt by McCain to give some personality to what is seen as a cold, lifeless commodity name – “one step up from own-label” according to one industry observer, who believes it doesn’t really deserve to be called a “brand” at all.

McCain may dominate the global frozen oven-ready chips market (it invented them in the early Seventies), but some wonder about how far it can go in launching products that show scant regard for health concerns when diets high in salt, sugar and fat are daily criticised in the media. The company was unavailable for comment as Marketing Week went to press.

Unconfirmed figures from researcher IRI suggest McCain’s UK sales were worth &£232m in the year to August. It is thought that some &£200m of this was accounted for by potato products, with the rest coming from pizzas and snacks.

McCain has made some concessions to health concerns in North America, using non-hydrogenated fats to lower the levels of unhealthy trans-fatty acids and it says it is working on the extension of this into other markets. A statement says: “We believe that all McCain products can be part of a nutritionally balanced diet and a healthy, active lifestyle.”

In reality, frozen foods are seen by consumers as outdated and they have an uncertain future. The Big Food Group, which owns struggling Iceland, is this week believed to be considering a takeover offer. The &£3.4bn UK frozen market has been in crisis for years, suffering declining sales (by value at least) and ferocious price competition.

According to Investec food analyst David Lang, frozen is seen as “the food of last resort”: what you eat when you’ve run out of everything else. It is unpopular with retailers – particularly supermarkets – which can maintain higher margins on their own-label chilled and fresh foods. Frozen foods are expensive to stock, being energy-intensive and taking up valuable store space that could be dedicated to non-food items. It is hard to merchandise frozen foods in an interesting way and shoppers often bypass the freezers.

But Lang says Birds Eye’s &£60m relaunch, promoting itself as a wholesome brand without additives, could boost the sector – and at least stop Birds Eye from losing market share to own-label products. Since Unilever’s failed launch of the Enjoy! frozen ready meals range, the company has slashed costs from its operation, making greater use of outsourced production and reviewing ownership of its Grimsby factory. Steamfresh technology, which allows frozen vegetables to be “steamed” in the microwave, has been extended to fish. Steamfresh ready meals will be launched in October.

Birds Eye brand director Jerry Wright says: “We shouldn’t be pessimistic about frozen food. If the big brands get their act together and put the message across, I don’t see why frozen foods can’t be a growing, dynamic category.”

Frozen food seems to be heading in two contrary directions. The Birds Eye route promotes the integrity, naturalness and health benefits of frozen foods. The other path, pursued by McCain, pushes convenience and comfort-eating.

Firmly in the second camp is Aunt Bessie’s, launched in 1995 and now worth &£110m a year in sales. Commercial director John Hendy at brand owner Tryton Foods says the company’s range of Yorkshire puddings and “traditional” English meals offers comfort in an age of instability.

Comfort food reminds people of their childhood and is fertile ground for brands to act as parental substitutes. As Hendy says: “Aunt Bessie is what consumers remember from when they were younger: their mother, their aunt or grandmother. Consumers believe Aunt Bessie has been around for a long while, and they are surprised to learn she has only been going for eight years.”

So all is not doom and gloom in the freezer aisle. Birds Eye, Aunt Bessie’s, Young’s Bluecrest and Bernard Matthews are building their brand positions – and the market is attracting new entrants such as Dr Oetker. The extent to which consumers disregard much talked-about health concerns and buy into McCain’s new desserts will be an indication of how far the company is able to extend its brand beyond oven-ready chips.

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